There is a postcard of a sheep staring at me from my cork board. Right above the tiny desk that acts as my home office. I very intentionally put it there when I bought it a month ago. If you continue reading past the first paragraph, bless you and thank you. Now, allow me to explain.
I don’t know about you, but for me, it is so hard to take in what is said of me in the Bible. I just don’t know how to receive it. Don’t want to. It makes such little sense. We don’t want to be kept; we want to be the keepers of things. We don’t want to follow; we want to be the ones who have followers. We want to be looked up to, thought much of; not the one looking up to and thinking much of others.
Contrary to the model of self-reliance and self-determination so exalted in Western, and especially North American culture, we who follow Christ are called sheep. I’ve had to grapple with this matter and am finding it both delightful and ever so foreign to me. It is utterly contrary to how I was raised. Far from how I was educated. And certainly, in total dissonance with what society holds important. The measure by which we are to view ourselves and others.
When I think of a sheep, I think of a modest animal. It needs keeping. It is not self-reliant, shrewd, or aggressive. It is entirely dependent on the owner. On its own, it will go astray and likely not survive since it is not astute. As per usual, our fleshy minds and worldviews can’t quite see what is otherworldly logic. Lest we forget though, our logic is foolish by comparison.
Jesus being the Son of God was, while on earth, a blue-collar worker. A carpenter. Not much glamour there. He also referred to himself as a shepherd. In the Old Testament, David, considered the greatest king Israel ever had, was watching over sheep long before he would wear the crown.
Identity is a funny thing. Ask anyone in a social gathering who they are and often what they value transcribes in the answers. A few years ago, during a small group gathering, the question was thrown to get the conversation started. It was during a tough season for me, at the apex of my workaholism. When my turn came, I remember answering “I am -and inserted my job title - an account manager” and added a bit more about the responsibilities I managed.
As others answered, I remember thinking something was not right with my answer. Although it took a whole year later for things to worsen enough, to break my frenzied pursuit for significance through work, that day I saw a glimpse. Yes, at that small group gathering I became vaguely aware of a disconnection. That vague awareness grew to sober-minded clarity over the past few years; I believed in Jesus, but not in what He said about me. The source of my worth was not in sync with Truth. They were very different.
Who we are says things about us to others. For example, “I am a wife”, informs my days are woven with those of someone else, that my calendar is not mine alone. When my friend says “I am a mother, it shows she is responsible for managing the lives, schedules, and rhythms of her children. “I am a teacher”, depicts a person charged to instruct.
We humans often attach a value system to each variable. In a mindset where marriage is the end all be all, wife might mean the person is more complete. Where money is an essential factor for a career choice, teacher could convey “she doesn’t earn a lot”. Whatever we value usually transcribes in how we see others and especially the identity we want to convey about ourselves.
So back to the sheep. Who wants to be a sheep? After all, even by the standards of the animal kingdom, it is not a remarkable creature. Why is it often used to identify the one who follows Jesus?
A sheep is kept. Fed. Guided. Nurtured. Cared for. Its needs are covered by someone else.
A sheep is also trusting. It will follow when led. It learns to recognize the voice of the shepherd who keeps it. And without guidance, it will easily get lost. It’s not the sharpest one.
In my life, while guidance was something I may have desperately wanted at times, being guided was not a life goal. Fed, nurtured, follower, trusting; do not sound like achievements. And back at that group gathering, I was all about achievements in my life. The kind that said something about me, like “I am important, smart, successful.” A sheep? No, thanks.
In western culture, there is special distinction given to occupation. Who we are is what we do. Perhaps because we do something in order to feel like we are someone. This was true of me for the better part of my adulthood.
But the Bible points in a different direction. Because of whose you are, out of that identity you do. In other words, you don’t do to attain. That part is already completed. There is no need to attain. No longer feeling like our identity depends on it. Because it doesn’t. Biblically speaking, identity is something we receive, not something we build.
This is not just a different perspective. To be clear, it is a foreign one. A completely changed way of looking at oneself and others. And it should be. After all, Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. So why should it be built on the same value system and principles?
Back to the sheep. Yes, to close I want to go where this conversation began. Before this world’s noisy and alluring narratives, before my own very pesky opinionated ones, I want to look up, above and outside of myself, and look deep into the Word, let it be the light unto my path it says it is. Before any aggregated information about my person, I am like a sheep. I need keeping, nourishing, and guidance I am not qualified or expected to provide for myself. I was designed to need Him, my shepherd. To do so is the right order of things and for my soul. If you too need the reminder, I am praying these words hearten your thoughts too.